Halakhic Discussions

Nine Crazy Nights?

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Michael Kurin


That Hanukkah is an eight-day holiday is something we all take for granted.[1] The truth is, however, it is not so obvious that Hanukkah outside of Israel should be eight days long. On most other holidays, we in the Diaspora add an extra day of yom tov, initially due to uncertainty about the correct day and now as a continuation of the old custom.[2] The Talmud (Arakhin 10a) says as much when it lists the days of the calendar year on which we recite a complete Hallel: “R. Yohanan said in the name of R. Shimon son of Yehozadak: [there are] 18 days on which an individual recites a complete Hallel … and in the Diaspora 21 [days]: nine days for Sukkot, eight days of Hanukkah, the [first] two days of Pesah, and the two days of Shavuot.” In Israel, there are 18 days, and outside of Israel there are 21 days, due to the extra days of yom tov. Unlike Pesah, Shavuot, and Sukkot, Hanukkah does not have an extra day added and is listed as eight days even in the Diaspora.

Why is Hanukkah an exception? Scholars have wondered about this question for centuries, beginning with Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrachi in the 16th century,[3] who writes: “And there is reason to wonder, why do we not have the practice nowadays to light [the Hanukkah candles] for nine days, like on [other] holidays?”

In this essay, I will outline the various answers to this question and suggest an approach that teaches us something of fundamental importance about the concerted rabbinic effort to shift our focus from Hanukkah’s military victory to the miracle of the long-lasting oil.

Technical Answers
Several aharonim offered technical answers to explain why Hanukkah does not have a ninth day.

  1. Hanukkah occurs later in the calendar month than any other Jewish holiday (on the 25th of the month). Pnei Yehoshua[4] cites a Gemara (Sanhedrin 41b) that even before the calendar was set, by the midway point through any given month, knowledge of the correct date of Rosh Hodesh had spread even to the most distant Diaspora communities – if not directly by the messengers, then by word of mouth. It just so happens that Hanukkah is the only holiday that begins after the 15th of the month. Based on this idea, Etz Hayyim suggests that Hanukkah never required an additional day for uncertainty. The extra day is only necessary for holidays that begin by the middle of their respective months.[5] While this explanation is compelling, it is important to note that it goes against some other aharonim such as Minhat Hinukh (cited below) who believed that nine days of Hanukkah were celebrated when Rosh Hodesh was determined by sighting of the new moon. Furthermore, the Gemara made its statement in the context of evaluating testimony regarding the date of a crime and may not be applicable to our discussion of observing an extra day of a holiday.

  2. Netziv notes that adding an extra day to Hanukkah would not just affect the ninth day:

    And it seems to me that [a ninth day was not added] because on Hanukkah it would not be possible, because if we lit [the candles] on the second day [for example, we would be required to light] one candle and two candles, due to the uncertainty about the [correct] day – that would make three [candles], and it would appear as if it were the 3rd day [of Hanukkah]. Therefore, they were forced to only rely on the majority [and not add an extra day].[6]

    Netziv’s answer is a practical one. Adding a ninth day to Hanukkah would mean that each day along the way is also in doubt. For most holidays this makes little practical difference, but for Hanukkah, where the day determines how many candles are lit, this would lead to a logistical nightmare. We would need to each have two separate menorahs, each with a different number of candles, and even then people may think the real day is the sum of the number of candles in the two menorahs. According to the Netziv, in theory we really should celebrate nine days of Hanukkah, and only this technical issue prevented the sages from establishing this practice.

    However, one difficulty with Netziv’s answer is that lighting an additional candle for each day of Hanukkah is mehadrin min ha-mehadrin—a stringency beyond what the basic Halakhah requires, which is only ner ish u-baito—one candle per household on each night. It seems strange that in deference to the stringency to light an additional candle corresponding to each day, the Sages would be lenient by not adding a ninth day to the holiday, potentially allowing one “true” day of Hanukkah to be missed entirely.

    3. Kol Yehudah (cited in Beit Levi 1:4) took advantage of another well-known question related to Hanukkah candles to attempt to answer ours. Many have asked why Hanukkah is eight days rather than seven; since there was enough oil to last one day, only the final seven days were miraculous and thus the holiday should have been seven days. While numerous answers have been suggested, Kol Yehudah suggests that perhaps the holiday really is only seven days, and the 8th day we currently celebrate was added for the uncertainty of the date. Beit Levi of course rejected this solution by noting that even in Israel, Hanukkah is, and always has been, eight days.

The Rabbinic Nature of Hanukkah
Some of the technical answers are better than others, but of more fundamental importance, many suggest the reason we do not have a ninth day of Hanukkah relates to its rabbinic nature. Perhaps only holidays of biblical origin were given an extra day of yom tov. This answer is offered by multiple scholars, including Birkhei Yosef,[7] Kehillat Yaakov,[8] and Ateret Zekeinim.[9] Pri Hadash,[10] for example, writes, “And the reason that the sages did not establish nine days [of Hanukkah] due to the uncertainty of the date is that since it [Hanukkah] is a rabbinic matter, they [the Rabbis] did not trouble the people [with the extra day].”

Challenges to this Answer
Although straightforward and in some ways compelling, the notion that the Sages did not establish a ninth day of Hanukkah because it is a rabbinic holiday can be challenged in several ways.

  1. There seems to be little to no downside to lighting candles and reciting Hallel for one extra day, without reciting the blessings. One has to wonder what is gained by applying leniency to the (potential) ninth day of Hanukkah.

  2. Purim is a powerful counterexample of another rabbinic holiday that some write would have been made two days in the Diaspora were it not for an explicit verse in the Book of Esther forbidding it. Based on the commentary of Mordekhai to Masekhet Megillah, R. Mizrachi writes, “Regarding Megillah [reading], even though it is rabbinic, they [the Sages] would have obligated one to read it on the 14th and 15th [of Adar]… if not for the possibility that the 14th was established specifically for its time, in which case [reading it again] on the 15th would be a violation of ‘ve-lo ya’avor’ (‘and it should not be allowed to pass further.’ Esther 9:27).”

    If not for the phrase “ve-lo ya’avor” in Esther, which is understood as prohibiting extension of the celebration of Purim an additional day, we would have kept two days of Purim. Since Hanukkah does not have such a prohibition, R. Mizrachi notes, Hanukkah should in fact be observed for nine days. R. Mizrachi clearly found this a compelling proof, as he ultimately leaves his question of why there is no ninth day of Hanukkah unanswered.

    3. When the Mishnah in Rosh Hashanah (18a) lists the months when messengers were sent out to inform communities living outside of Jerusalem when the new month began, Kislev is included; messengers were sent so Diaspora communities would know when Hanukkah would be. However, if it is true that for rabbinic holidays the sages would not add an extra day, there should not have been a need for messengers either. The Diaspora communities should have been allowed to presume the date of Hanukkah based on when the beginning of Kislev would be in the majority of years. The fact that messengers were sent implies we are still required to be meticulous about celebrating Hanukkah on the correct date, even though it is a rabbinic holiday. If that is the case, perhaps a ninth day should have been added by the same logic.[11]

    4. Assuming that the basis of the rabbinic leniency for omitting a ninth day is the principle safek derabanan lekula (in cases of doubt pertaining to a rabbinic matter, we are lenient), it is unclear whether safek derabanan lekula applies to situations of uncertainty regarding fulfillment of one of the rabbinic mitzvot. Regarding Hanukkah candles specifically, Mishnah Berurah (673:25) writes that if one attempted to light candles but there is doubt as to whether he fulfilled the mitzvah properly (because they predictably blew out in less than 30 minutes), he should light candles again without saying the blessing.[12] Furthermore, as Minhat Hinukh (301:2) points out, understanding this as a case of doubt would raise a practical challenge. There would be no reason to treat the first day of Hanukkah any differently from the theoretical ninth day, as in both cases we are uncertain as to whether it is truly one of the days Hanukkah. That being the case, we would need to be either lenient or stringent with both days, and we would wind up observing either seven or nine days of Hanukkah. Based on this, he is of the unique opinion that nine days of Hanukkah were actually celebrated in ancient times before the calendar was set, and that in Messianic times, when we return to deciding each month by the sighting of the moon, we will again celebrate nine days of Hanukkah.[13]

Perhaps for these reasons, several Aharonim were unsatisfied with the explanation that the Sages were lenient for rabbinic holidays, and offered alternative explanations.

An Intentional Rabbinic Decision
Instead of the notion that the Sages were simply lenient and did not want to trouble the nation with an additional day for rabbinic holidays, some understood the decision to limit Hanukkah to eight days as an intentional one.

Abudraham (cited in the Ateret Zekeinim to Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 670) writes, “[On Sukkot we celebrate nine days because of the uncertainty of the date for this biblical holiday.] But Hanukkah, which is rabbinic, they [the Sages] said to make eight days of Hanukkah, and they [the Sages] devised the calculations of the lunar cycle.” Rather than simply saying that the Sages were lenient, Abudraham invokes the principle of heim amru ve-heim amru (literally, “they said and they said”), which means that since the Sages were the ones who created rabbinic enactments, they have the right to issue certain exceptions or exemptions to these enactments. This may suggest that there is some intentionality to the Sages’ decision to keep Hanukkah eight days long even in the Diaspora.

But why might the Sages have wanted to keep Hanukkah at eight days, even outside of Israel? Pri Hadash (Orach Chaim 670) takes Abudraham’s idea one step further, invoking the symbolic importance of keeping Hanukkah eight days long. He writes, “Alternatively, this [to have only eight days of Hanukkah] is better [than nine] so that [people] will know exactly the duration of the miracle [of the oil], no less and no more [than eight days].”

Pri Hadash suggests that the Sages might have deliberately wanted to keep Hanukkah eight days long in the Diaspora rather than add an extra day as is done for other holidays, even if adding an extra day would have been appropriate standard procedure. The reason is the symbolic importance of eight days to Hanukkah. In this way, the days of the holiday itself can serve as a precise reminder of the miracle for which they were established.

This suggestion of Pri Hadash is a prime example of the uniqueness of Hanukkah in Jewish law. Even though other holidays commemorate miraculous events, in no other holiday is there specific concern that the duration of the holiday should line up with the duration of the miracle. Indeed, Hanukkah has a surprising focus on the miracle of oil; the concept of pirsumei nisa (publicizing the miracle) deeply pervades and underlies so many of the laws and practices of Hanukkah.

The focus on the miracle of the oil is even more unique when we consider the fact that the miracle of the oil, while important, was not a matter of life and death and did not save the Jewish people from physical destruction. Miracles commemorated on other holidays are miracles that led to the salvation of the Jewish people from destruction.

The truth is, there is no obvious basis in Jewish law to establish a holiday in recognition of a miracle that does not directly involve the salvation of the Jewish people. The Gemara in Megillah 14a outlines when the establishment of a holiday to celebrate a miracle is appropriate: “Rabbi Hiyya son of Avin said in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karha, if from slavery to freedom (on Pesah) we sing praises [to God], [if we are saved] from death to life, [like on Purim,] how much more so!?”

This Gemara explains why the creation of Purim was appropriate: since we have a holiday commemorating our salvation from slavery, we should certainly celebrate salvation from annihilation as well. Ibn Ezra (Numbers 10:10) extends this idea to Hanukkah.[14] Similarly, the Gemara (Pesahim 117a) notes that Hallel is appropriate for any occasion in which the Jewish people faced a great danger and were saved from it. Rashi there explicitly cites Hanukkah as the prime example of this concept.

Based on this, it seems the legal basis for the establishment of Hanukkah as a holiday was primarily the military victory over the Greeks, which resolved the danger to the Jewish people. I would argue that the miracle of oil alone would not have been sufficient reason for establishing the holiday.

Perhaps, then, it is not surprising that when looking at the oldest sources we have that describe the establishment of Hanukkah, the miracle of oil plays a much less prominent role. After describing the military victory and the return to the Temple and its service, the first book of Maccabees (4:56-59) records: “And they made the dedication of the altar eight days, and they brought offerings with joy, and offered sacrifices. … And so Yehudah and his brothers and all the congregation of Israel established that they should celebrate the days of the dedication of the altar in their time, year after year, for eight days.”

As is often noted, the miracle of oil is not mentioned in the book of Maccabees. The eight days of Hanukkah were established to commemorate the rededication of the altar. Most likely, the decision to celebrate for eight days was patterned after the dedication of the Tabernacle described in the Torah and the dedication King Solomon made after building the Temple, which both lasted eight days.[15]

This makes it all the more surprising that when the Sages ask (Shabbat 21a), “What is the essence of Hanukkah?” the immediate answer given is the miracle of the oil, not the military victory.[16] All of this begs the question: Why did the earlier sources ignore the miracle of oil, and why did the Sages focus on the oil miracle while minimizing the military victory?

Although we can’t be sure of the reason the miracle of oil was not mentioned in the earlier literature, it is possible it was omitted because it was felt to be insignificant in comparison with the miraculous military victory, and perhaps it was not enough to warrant the establishment of Hanukkah. At the same time, it is widely accepted among scholars that our Sages made a deliberate shift in focus, away from the military victory and towards the miracle of oil. Scholars have suggested several reasons for this shift, including the Sages’ dislike of the Hasmonean dynasty because they ultimately became corrupt and rejected the teachings of the Pharisees, or a desire to discourage military confrontation after failed revolts against Rome.[17] Some have suggested that with the end of prophecy and Jewish political autonomy, the path to Jewish survival would be through spiritual achievement and Torah study rather than physical strength or political machination.[18]

Whatever the reason, it is clear that the Sages were interested in downplaying the military victory and emphasizing the miracle of the oil. Thus, they took a miracle which on its own might not be enough to justify the establishment of Hanukkah and turned it into the focal point of that holiday.

I would like to suggest that the approach of Pri Hadash, with its emphasis on the rabbinic decision to keep Hanukkah at eight days specifically, even outside of Israel, is part of this deliberate approach to shift the focus of Hanukkah from the military to the spiritual. This also may be the reason for the focus on pirsumei nisa, publicizing the miracle (of oil) that pervades so many of the laws of Hanukkah. The unusual decision to match the length of the holiday to the duration of the eight-day miracle it commemorates is part of the Sages’ strategy to orchestrate a shift in the focus of celebration away from the Hasmonean victory and towards the apolitical, non-military miracle that facilitated spiritual worship and in which the Maccabees did not play a major role.

We’ve explored a number of reasons why there is no ninth day of Hanukkah. Yet, nowadays, few people even wonder why we do not have a ninth day. Perhaps this is a testament to the Sages’ unequivocal success in orchestrating a dramatic shift in the focus of our Hanukkah celebration away from the original theme of military victory and achieving functional control over the Temple. To the modern Jew, Hanukkah is nearly synonymous with eight days and the miracle of oil.

And yet, with the advent of the modern State of Israel, some of the original themes of the military victory that were downplayed by the Sages have become more relevant again. The Jewish people have rediscovered political autonomy and the need for military might. However, unlike the Hasmoneans, we come to this position as products of Rabbinic Judaism, of the world that prioritizes the values of Torah study, mitzvah observance, inner strength, and spiritual growth. It is our responsibility to synthesize these two worldviews, even if we don’t advocate for one more night of Hanukkah.

[1] I would like to thank Sarah Rudolph for her help in editing the draft of the article.

[2] Beitzah 4b.

[3] Hiddushei ha-Re’em on Semag, laws of Hanukkah.

[4] Rosh Hashanah 18a.

[5] Cited in Birkhei Yosef Orah Hayyim 670.

[6] Meromei Sadeh to Rosh Hashanah 18a.

[7] Orah Hayyim 670:2.

[8] Tosafot Derabanan 60:221.

[9] Orah Hayyim 670:1.

[10] Orah Hayyim 670.

[11] This point is made by Netziv in his Meromei Sadeh commentary to Rosh Hashanah 18a, and was the impetus for him to offer an alternative explanation (above) as to why Hanukkah does not have a 9th day.

[12] See Sha’ar Hatziyun (30) there, who explains this is a situation of doubt because perhaps it was not certain that the candles would blow out.

[13] See Mishneh La-Melekh (Hilkhot Megillah 1:11) who argues against this logic.

[14] Hatam Sofer (Yoreh Deah 233:14) extended this explicitly to Hanukkah as well, and based on this logic, wrote that Hanukkah and Purim have biblical status because there is a biblical obligation to praise God on the day a miracle happened to you. Only the specific practices of Hanukkah and Purim are rabbinic in nature.

[15] Alternatively, the second book of Maccabees (10:6) explains that the Jews celebrated eight days in commemoration of Sukkot because they were not allowed to celebrate Sukkot under the reign of the Greeks.

[16] The focus on the miracle of oil is even more surprising when considering that pure oil may not have actually been required.

[17] Based on the introduction to Sefer Makkabim 1 by Uriel Rappaport, as well as pp. 76-77.

[18] For more on this, see Tzvi Sinensky’s Lehrhaus article, “Masculinity and the Hanukkah Hero: Toward a New Interpretation of Biblical Gevurah.”

Michael Kurin is a gastroenterologist at MetroHealth Medical Center. Prior to entering medical school he studied in Yeshiva University, where he obtained his Semikha from RIETS and an MA in medieval Jewish history from Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. Michael and his wife, Devorah, are proud parents of 4 children, and live in Cleveland, Ohio. Michael can be reached at michaelkurin@gmail.com.